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A Wintry Mix

February 19, 2019 | At this point in the current season, even this native midwesterner is starting to feel that the winter of 2019 has become a little ridiculous. That’s me to the right, in front of today’s snow-pile (hand-shoveled, I might add) at the foot of the driveway. I’m about 6′ 1″ in those boots, the pile is about eight feet away, and the photo was shot from a slightly low angle. In other words, that thing is taller than me.

But I persevere, because even during a particularly challenging winter I ultimately prefer the variety of seasonal change. Also, I’m mostly Norwegian and genetically programmed to be reasonably comfortable standing at the prow of a fishing boat in the Baltic during a midwinter gale, so there’s that. But I also find that winter offers moments of unique beauty: a few nights ago, while taking out the recycling (currently a major project requiring planning and special equipment), I noticed the reflections of a neighbor’s porch light bouncing off the crystalline glaze on top of the day’s snowfall, making it blink like a field of stars. As I crunched my way toward our green and beige bins over what had once been a perfectly navigable concrete walkway, I found myself asking: where does the winter of 2019 rank in my lifetime of winters? So, naturally, I made a list of the most memorable winters of my life. What I discovered is that the winter of 2019 really isn’t that big of a deal.

Most Paralyzing Snowstorm

Tie: Raleigh, North Carolina (2010) and New York, New York (1996)
You’ve never really experienced winter until you’ve been in a massive storm in a place that (A) either doesn’t have the infrastructure to deal with it or (B) has too much other stuff going on to be distracted by it.

In 2010, we were living in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina when we got the worst bits of an unexpected, days-long snow and ice storm that shut down the region like a ticked-off teenager slamming a bedroom door. In response, our wonderful neighborhood gathered for a now-legendary party at our house. The kid was out of school and I couldn’t get to my office for two days, so we went sledding on trash-can lids and cardboard, because in North Carolina there is no rational reason for anyone to invest in a sled.

In New York in 1996, I was snowed-in with a friend for four days before the trains started moving again. We listened to Chicago Blues and Los Angeles Punk, gave ourselves ulcers with ridiculous quantities of instant coffee, and made it down to the corner for pizza a couple of times when the place was able to open. When I finally boarded a Manhattan-bound F train to connect with a Port Authority bus, the cars were so crowded I had to carry my suitcase on my head. I then had to take a bus to Newark, joining an airport full of people who, in spite of having access to better coffee, had that thousand-yard stare you get when you’re stuck in a place like Newark airport for four days. Come to think of it, the Newark airport part was actually the worst part, but Newark is usually the worst part.

Moment at Which I Have Never Felt Colder

Denver, Colorado (1990s)
I can’t remember the exact year, but like many in Denver at that particular time I was under-prepared for a sudden blast of cold air that attacked the region for a couple of days. I remember air so devoid of moisture that my skin looked like an ancient dried-up lakebed, and a wind so biting it literally sucked the air out of my lungs.  

Generally Worst Winters

Chicago, Illinois (most years)
Let’s just be direct: Chicago winters suck. They’re wet, dreary, dark, windy, cold, dirty, and the city’s legendary municipal dysfunction means that snow removal is clearly an afterthought. Sure, there are lots of things to do and good things to eat in a place like Chicago, but with several feet of heavy snow on the ground and the Chicago vibe-o-meter set to “surly” on its best days, it can be difficult to gin up the courage to venture out into the world for average Thai food and a museum visit. During a particularly bad Chicago winter you sometimes get the feeling that your fellow citizens secretly want to eat you, and each other, even if they’re not short on food.

The best part of the Blizzard of 1999 occurred after I parked my car for two days with a window absent-mindedly left fully open. Have you ever seen a rusty 1984 Saab filled with snow? I have. I have also manually removed snow from a rusty 1984 Saab filled with snow. Pro tip: if this ever happens to you, be sure to get the snow out while temperatures are still obscenely cold, before that snow hasn’t turned back into water.

Most Beautiful Winter Moment

Minneapolis, Minnesota (1991)
The night was devoted to hanging out with friends and a show at Seventh Street Entry. And then it got Minnesota-cold, highlighted by sandblaster-speed winds blowing fine sheets of crystalline snow. The next morning, however, was glorious. We woke up to a city bathed in sunlight so clear the skyline looked as if it had been rendered in silverpoint and then dusted with powdered sugar. The view from the bluffs around St. Paul was stunning, and people were smiling. It felt like the end of a post-apocalyptic movie in which, after a long journey, a group of exhausted survivors find a safe place with nice people.

Totally Funnest Winter

Glencoe, Illinois (1978)
Blizzard of 1978. I was 11. We got four feet of perfect packing-snow, which provided literally tons of raw material for a Snow Fort Wonderland. I was outside for days in my cheap, inadequate, and very brown Sears parka and matching snow pants. In the front yard, I built an extensive network of snow caves connected by snow trenches. I burned candles inside the snow caves because I’d heard that the interior walls of igloos were treated in this way to briefly melt the inside layer of frozen stuff, which is allowed to re-freeze, making the interior wall smooth and structurally stronger. If you ever need to build an igloo, try it: it works. The day everything started to melt was one of the saddest days of my life, to that point.

They’ve Already Plowed the Bike Paths

Madison, Wisconsin (a few days ago)
Welcome home, neighbors.

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